Monday, 19 January 2015

Is there a siffleur in the house?

If you were listening to the radio today and heard a new word - siffleur - referring to Ronnie Ronalde who has just died, you have not yet read the Five Leaves' book A Brief History of Whistling. Ronalde is of course covered in the book. A siffleur is a professional whistler. The female version is siffleuse, and our book was launched with a siffleuse, Sheila Harrod, who knew Ronalde, stealing the show. The book also retells John Gorman's story of Ronalde appearing on Sundays at a bar in Hackney, deserted during the week, but an upmarket bar with drag queens on Sundays. This was in the 1950s. Ronalde's whistling was popular in the 1940s and 50s, when he was regularly on the radio, had best-selling records and you could even by a Ronnie Ronalde whistling aid which looked like a polo mint but made of tin.
As far as we know, our book is the only book on the history of whistling!

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Mike Marqusee

Five Leaves is sorry to read that Mike Marqusee has died, aged only 61, after being ill for several years with cancer. He was a great supporter of the NHS and in his writings often talked about the number of people who'd kept him alive and the way the NHS is being abused by this government.
Mike could be correctly described as unique in that he was the only London-based American Jewish Marxist who wrote about cricket, including for the Indian newspaper The Hindu.
Though I knew of his political, music and sporting writing I'd never met him until he rang to ask if I could put together a team of people to help him leaflet Trent Bridge announcing the formation of an anti-racist cricket organisation. I was happy to help as long as nobody asked about cricket! Later Mike came to Lowdham Book Festival, then jointly organised by Five Leaves, to talk about Bob Dylan, the subject of two of his books.
His other books included the important If I Am Not Myself: journey of an anti-Zionist Jew and, recently, The Price of Experience: writings on living with cancer.
Mike was a committed socialist activist, involved in the anti-war movement who went public on how the Socialist Workers Party abused their position within the Stop the War group. His socialism was ethical, inclusive and visionary. I was pleased, then to include his essay Let's Talk Utopia as the editorial essay in the Five Leaves publication Utopia. In that essay he wrote "We need to find ways to connect to the utopian yearnings that move millions of people, and which the right-wing and the advertising industry know too well how to exploit. We have to offer something more participatory, concrete and the same time more dynamic, more of a process, a journey than an end product polished by the intelligentsia. In doing that, we can draw on a rich tradition going back to the Biblical prophets and found in almost every society." In a sentence he summed up his argument "We need the attraction of a possible future as well as a revulsion at the actual present. ... we don't 'talk utopia' nearly enough."
Mike helped make the left more inhabitable and his influence was widespread.
Typically he asked for contributions in his memory to go to Medical Aid for Palestine and to St Joseph's Hospice which looked after him towards the end.
Our condolences to his partner, comrade and co-thinker, Liz Davies.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Allotment publishing, then and now: this blessed plot, this earth, this realm...

I used to work in a radical bookshop in Nottingham called Mushroom Bookshop. Somehow I'd missed buying Colin Ward and David Crouch's book The Allotment: its landscape and culture when it came out as an expensive Faber hardback before it went out of print. In 1994 I got fed up waiting on the paperback and suggested to Faber that Mushroom buy the rights and that we publish in paper ourselves. This seemed a bit excessive as I only wanted one copy (the internet had not been invented yet) but needs must. Colin - a friend of mine as it happened - and David were keen to see new life breathed into the work. Faber set a reasonable price and, hey presto, I was a publisher of real books under Mushroom's name. I'd previously published pamphlets under various guises, but this was a 311 page book of some import.
It turned out a lot of people had been waiting, and waiting, and we had a steady seller on our hands. It was one of the very few books that came up on searches for allotments and was particularly popular among those new to allotmenting who wanted to know their history. At the time I had two plots myself on the famous Hungerhill site in Nottingham. The book was reviewed, mentioned, referred to, sent to John Prescott when he was in charge of allotments, drawn on for everything anybody else was writing on allotments and bits were lifted without permission or credit by one Sunday newspaper!
In 1995 I left Mushroom and their publications went with me (we'd published a few other books by then) and The Allotment became the book that underwrote the rest of what was now Five Leaves' list. It was not long before Five Leaves became the world's biggest publisher of books on allotments. We became so when we published our second such book, One Woman's Plot by Geraldine Kilbride. It sold out. Indeed, if anyone has a spare copy I'd like one as our file copy here has some missing pages! Then came City Fields, Country Gardens, a collection of allotment essays that first appeared in the Guardian from Michael Hyde.
The book was edited by David Crouch and Martin Stott, with wonderful photos by Martin. We learned that Michael was very ill and brought publication forward. He received copies just in time, in hospital where he presented a copy to his favourite nurse, and though he was far too ill to attend the launch he said a few words down the phone. Michael had kept allotment writing alive during the dark periods and we were proud to have published him. That sold out too.
We added The Art of Allotments by David Crouch and couldn't help but feel a BIG book on allotment art and photography would be a good thing.... but that is for others, because by now allotment publishing was not uncommon and it was time for Five Leaves to move on, our job done on that front. Yet Crouch and Ward kept selling and we kept reprinting it, thinking it was time for that book to leave the stage but still nobody else had written an accessible yet well researched book on allotment history.
Until we met Lesley Acton. It was time to let Crouch and Ward go and, after a decent interval, replace the book. Sure, there are one or two others, but aimed more for a popular market (and we don't do popular) rather than social history. How did we meet Lesley? Not sure, because she normally writes on ceramics but had moved on to allotments and runs
So... on March 14 in Leicester and March 16 in London we launch A Growing Place: a history of the allotment movement by her. You can't order it yet, but will soon.
This history investigates how changing economic, political and cultural conditions have affected the demand for plots. Allotmenting is far from being a benign activity for the poor but a highly politicised issue reflecting debates on land use, good food, planning and, now, "redevelopment". In tracing the ups and downs of the movement and its culture the book discusses whether allotments will continue to survive.
And Five Leaves returns to its roots. In more ways than one.
ps - this blessed plot quote is from Shakespeare's King Richard II

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Radical bookselling update and prospects

The big debate in the general booktrade - featured heavily in the Guardian - is about whether the day of the celebrity biography has finally come to an end or is simply slowing down. At the other end of the spectrum even commercial publishers have started noticing that left wing books sell, and sell well, with Allen Lane publishing The Establishment by Owen Jones. This book topped the Christmas best-seller charts at Nottingham's Five Leaves Bookshop and at News from Nowhere in Liverpool, coming second at Housmans in London only to Housmans' own annual Peace Diary, despite it being a £16.99 hardback. Allen Lane, the top end of the Penguin empire, also published Naomi Klein's This Changes Everything, the one book that really might have an impact on climate change and a book which places the blame for climate change right where it belongs - with capitalism.

Five Leaves has just completed its first full year trading as an independent and radical bookshop. Looking at our December best-sellers, ten of the top fifteen were political books. The only novel was John Harvey's Darkness, Darkness which was set during the miners' strike of thirty years ago and in modern times. Indeed, three of the fifteen were related to the miners' strike. The strike remains a defining part of our common history. We're pleased with our first year, but just as pleased that News from Nowhere had a record Yuletide and a record year. The publicity around their fortieth birthday helped as did the unfortunate closure of a Waterstones' branch in the same street. Many people, in person and online prefer to "shop with the real Amazons" at this women-run bookshop. The radical book-trade is nothing if not tenacious! News From Nowhere, London's Gay's the Word and Housmans are positively venerable; Wordpower in Edinburgh and the two anarchist distributors Active Distribution and AK Distribution have passed out of their teenage years but there is a range of younger projects that seem to be sustaining themselves. All strive to be part of their local community, working with campaign and other groups. It can only be positive that members of the Alliance of Radical Booksllers are sprinkled around the country - it's not a London-centric membership. 

AK Distribution report that their best selling titles includes books on feminism and economics and in Scotland Wordpower had large sales for books related to the Scottish referendum. Another trend is the renewed interest in "people's history". In Nottingham Chris Richardson's City of Light, a book about radical life in the city in the year of 1844 has sold over 500 copies while Spokesman Books and Merlin Press offer a different history of World War One that that pursued by our Government. For those of us keen on pamphlets it is s good to see Stop the War Coalition's pamphlet on WWI, No Glory. People will read pamphlets if they are stocked by bookshops - something commercial bookshops are loathe to do. Five Leaves is a publisher turned bookseller and having a shop has enabled us to return to being a pamphleteer too. Our first two titles will be available shortly, one being a forgotten essay by Edward Said on Jerusalem, sadly as appropriate now as when first written, the second on the Communist Doctor Who writer, Malcolm Hulke, whose existence we came across in the Morning Star!

Radical bookshops are not the only side of the business with claims to venerability. Merlin Press will shortly be sixty and its publishing arm is run in tandem with Global Book Marketing, representing many publishers from home and abroad while the main distributor of radical publishers and magazines, Central Books, has been in business since 1939. Nobody rests on their laurels though, and the Russell Press (set up in the heady days of 1968) has been at the forefront of digital printing and reports more and more groups using this affordable technology to publish local and people's histories.

Bookshops, publishers, distributors, printers... and prizes and bookfairs. The Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing is four in 2015 and will be funded by the General Federation of Trade Unions while in Nottingham the mini-festival of the same name was established in November also with trade union support. The number of local anarchist bookfairs continues to grow while the London Radical Bookfair is now the major date for the whole radical booktrade to come together. This year the Bookfair will again be at the Bishopsgate Institute, on 9th May.

So what are the big radical titles going to be for 2015? We too are finding a lot of interest in feminism, especially from young women, but the publishers are a bit slow to catch up. An exception is the short book We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The Green MP Caroline Lucas should get a lot of attention in March with her Honorouble Friends? discussing her work inside and outside of Parliament while Paul Mason's Post Capitalism will be a summer best seller. Looking at the lists of dedicated left wing publishers, Pluto is bringing out David Rosenberg's Rebel Footprints, a walking guide to the capital for lefties, due in March (the author first got to know he byways of London as Central Books' van driver) while the Verso paperback of A Philosophy of Walking by Frédéric Gros might enable us to think about walking without, you know, actually doing it.

And Five Leaves? Well, there is the small matter of an election coming. One of our big books in 2014 was Harry Paterson writing on Nottinghamshire during the miners' strike where, among other things he discussed the UDM. In 2015 we are letting him loose on the the political equivalent of a scab union, UKIP, with We Need to Talk About Nigel. We could hardly not.

A shorter version of this article will appear in the Morning Star

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Nairn's London by Routemaster

That's Ross Bradshaw, posing as if he was Ian Nairn on the front cover of Nairn's London, just re-issued by Penguin Books. Five Leaves basks in the glow of this as our Ian Nairn: Words in Place helped launch Nairnmania on November 10th 2013, which led to a TV programme and the release of the Penguin book. Indeed, we planned to release it at one stage before discovering that Penguin still owned the rights.
On 30th November fifty Nairnites boarded this bus - the same one that Nairn pretended to drive in 1966 - though with a different driver than Ross, for a guided tour round places dear to Ian Nairn.
The tour started on the Mile End Road in the Foxcroft & Ginger trendy cafe (two coffees - £6.19) which had been carved out of Wickham's department store of 1920. The building still has its doric columns interrupted by the remains of Spiegelhalter's the jeweller. How annoyed Wickham's must have been to have to have built round the little jewellery shop. By the way, if you ever go down the Mile End Road stop off at the 1695 alms houses for decayed ships' captains.
The next stop was The Whitechapel Bell Foundry, established in 1570 which, well, founds bells. The current founder in chief is a woman, the first in 450 years, striking a blow for women bell founders everywhere. Whitechapel made the bells of Big Ben, one small example of their work.
We then moved to the Bevis Marks synagogue "[A] great luminous room, compassionate light streaming in through big clear glass windows on to a set of curly brass chandeliers from Amsterdam that are almost at eye level. Nothing has fretted it or worried it for two hundred and fifty years... " said Nairn.
On further into the city to Leadenhall Market where once it was "... a riot of fish and fowl with row after row of turkeys and chickens on hooks right up to the cornice and the glass roof". Nowadays the fish and fowl have all gone, being replaced by bankers, plotting evil financial deeds in their wine bars as Leadenhall is next to the Lloyds building, which, I was pleased to see, is starting to look tatty.
Onwards to the Hill & Evans vinegar warehouse "Victorian wildness... demonaic" but now looking quite cuddly in front of the scary "cheesegrater" building that looks like it is going to flatten us all in its collapse.
Cheapside... West Smithfield... St Bartholemew-the-less... and a baked potato in a Chinese cafe that caters to taxi drivers. Past St Pauls, and off at Hawksmoor's Christ Church,. Spitalfields, looking naked without its pews. Up Fournier Street to see the Huguenots houses. The Five Leaves author Bill Fishman was once offered one for a thousand pounds. He did not have a thousand pounds. The buildings are now worth a couple of million each.
Back from the East End to the back of Kings Cross for talks and films. The panels included Gillian Darley, co-editor of our Ian Nairn book and Gavin Stamp, a contributor who also wrote the intro to the new Nairn's London. Our venue was The Cock Tavern in Somers Town, an Irish pub with a real fire, hanging on against the developers. The highlight for me was the talk by Travis Elborough on the Routemaster, which included some great film clips including the most ghastly performance by Tom Jones.
It was here that the event organiser David Collard sat on the bookstall table, and went through it, his Guinness doing a perfect parabola to go splat on twelve copies of our book. It somehow seemed appropriate that drink would provide a final focus, given the impact of the stuff on Ian Nairn. His death certificate was referred to in one of the discussions. People can imagine it. The table in question, now also deceased, is, Michael Rosen tells me, the very same table at which the executive committee of the Communist Party of Britain would sit round while plotting their revolution. I won the prize for the most battered copy of an original Nairn's London, the prize included a now drink-sodden copy of our own book, a new edition of London, a bottle of London Pride (declined) and a fine box of Nairn's Oatcakes. David was unharmed and is planning a rerun for all those who tried to get on the bus but will have to wait for the next one coming along in a year's time.


This note from David Collard, one of the contributors to Sonofabook. I'll echo that It's a Good Thing. And it will be on sale at Five Leaves Bookshop.

Please excuse this impersonal email. 

I'm sending this to everyone I know who is likely to be interested in Sonofabook, a new literary magazine launching in March 2015. This includes you, my anonymised friend.

Sonofabook assembles an illustrious roster of contributors living and dead, yet also finds room for an essay by myself. Click on this link to see the striking cover. Go on. 

Subscribe now and you'll not only get the first three numbers but can choose a free book from CB editions, including their forthcoming reissue of Agota Kristof's novels The Proof and The Third Lie.

(If you haven't yet discovered Kristof you're in for a big and beneficial shock. The main obstacle to British readers is her name - but a writer more unlike the creator of Hercule Poirot is impossible to imagine.)

Do spread the word about Sonofabook. It's a Good Thing.